Sunday, March 30, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is a 2007 film directed, written and produced by Paul Thomas Anderson. The film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil! (1927), and tells the story of a silver miner turned oil man on a ruthless quest for power during Southern California's oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano. Shooting began in mid-May 2006 in New Mexico and Marfa, Texas, with principal photography wrapping August 24, 2006. The first public screening was on September 29, 2007, at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. The film was released on December 26, 2007, in New York and Los Angeles, and then opened in a limited number of theaters in selected markets. It opened in wide release January 25, 2008.

The film received significant critical praise and numerous award nominations and victories. It appeared on many critics' "top ten" lists for the year, namely the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Many Best Actor Awards (BAFTA, Golden Globe, Screen Actors' Guild, etc.) went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his performance. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, two of which it won: Best Actor for Day-Lewis and Best Cinematography for Robert Elswit.

“There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic American nightmare, arrives belching fire and brimstone and damnation to Hell. Set against the backdrop of the Southern California oil boom of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, it tells a story of greed and envy of biblical proportions — reverberating with Old Testament sound and fury and New Testament evangelicalism — which Mr. Anderson has mined from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” There is no God but money in this oil-rich desert and his messenger is Daniel Plainview, a petroleum speculator played by a monstrous and shattering Daniel Day-Lewis.

Plainview is an American primitive. He’s more articulate and civilized than the crude, brutal title character in Frank Norris’s 1899 novel “McTeague,” and Erich von Stroheim’s masterly version of the same, “Greed.” But the two characters are brothers under the hide, coarse and animalistic, sentimental in matters of love and ruthless in matters of avarice. Mr. Anderson opens his story in 1898, closer to Norris’s novel than Sinclair’s, which begins in the years leading up to World War I. And the film’s opener is a stunner — spooky and strange, blanketed in shadows and nearly wordless. Inside a deep, dark hole, a man pickaxes the hard-packed soil like a bug gnawing through dirt. This is the earth mover, the ground shaker: Plainview.

Over the next two and a half mesmerizing hours Plainview will strike oil, then strike it rich and transform a bootstrapper’s dream into a terrifying prophecy about the coming American century. It’s a century he plunges into slicked in oil, dabbed with blood and accompanied by H. W. (eventually played by the newcomer Dillon Freasier), the child who enters his life in 1902 after he makes his first strike and seems to have burbled from the ground like the liquid itself. The brief scenes of Plainview’s first tender, awkward moments with H. W. will haunt the story. In one of the most quietly lovely images in a film of boisterous beauty, he gazes at the tiny, pale toddler, chucking him under the chin as they sit on a train very much alone.

“There Will Be Blood” involves a tangle of relationships, mainly intersecting sets of fathers and sons and pairs of brothers. (Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women.) But it is Plainview’s intense, needful bond with H. W. that raises the stakes and gives enormous emotional force to this expansively imagined period story with its pictorial and historical sweep, its raging fires, geysers of oil and inevitable blood. (Rarely has a film’s title seemed so ominous.) By the time H. W. is about 10, he has become a kind of partner to his father, at once a child and a sober little man with a jacket and neatly combed hair who dutifully stands by Plainview’s side as quiet as his conscience.

A large swath of the story takes place in 1911, by which point Plainview has become a successful oilman with his own fast-growing company. Flanked by the watchful H. W., he storms through California, sniffing out prospects and trying to persuade frenzied men and women to lease their land for drilling. (H. W. gives Plainview his human mask: “I’m a family man,” he proclaims to prospective leasers.) One day a gangling, unsmiling young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), arrives with news that oil is seeping out of the ground at his family’s ranch. The stranger sells this information to Plainview, who promptly sets off with H. W. to a stretch of California desert where oil puddles the ground among the cactus, scrub and human misery.

Not long afterward oil is gushing out of that desert. The eruption rattles both the earth and the local population, whom Plainview soothes with promises. Poor, isolated, thirsting for water (they don’t have enough even to grow wheat), the dazed inhabitants gaze at the oilman like hungry baby birds. (Their barren town is oddly named Little Boston.) He promises schools, roads and water, delivering his sermon with a carefully enunciated, sepulchral voice that Mr. Day-Lewis seems to have largely borrowed from the director John Huston. Plainview is preaching a new gospel, though one soon challenged by another salesman, Paul Sunday’s Holy Roller brother, Eli (also Mr. Dano). A charismatic preacher looking to build a new church, Eli slithers into the story, one more snake in the desert.

Mr. Anderson has always worn his influences openly, cribbing from Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman among others (he helped the ailing Altman with his final film, “A Prairie Home Companion”), but rarely has his movie love been as organically integrated into his work as it is here. Movie history weighs on every filmmaker, informs every cut, camera angle and movement. “There Will Be Blood” is very much a personal endeavor for Mr. Anderson; it feels like an act of possession. Yet it is also directly engaged with our cinematically constructed history, specifically with films — “Greed” and “Chinatown,” but also “Citizen Kane” — that have dismantled the mythologies of American success and, in doing so, replaced one utopian ideal for another, namely that of the movies themselves.

This is Mr. Anderson’s fifth feature and it proves a breakthrough for him as a filmmaker. Although there are more differences than similarities between it and the Sinclair book, the novel has provided him with something he has lacked in the past, a great theme. It may also help explain the new film’s narrative coherence. His first feature, “Sydney” (also known as “Hard Eight”), showed Mr. Anderson to be an intuitively gifted filmmaker, someone who was born to make images with a camera. His subsequent features — “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love” — have ambition and flair, though to increasingly diminished ends. Elliptical, self-conscious, at times multithreaded, they contain passages of clarity and brilliance. But in their escalating stylization you feel the burdens of virtuosity, originality, independence.

“There Will Be Blood” exhibits much the same qualities as Mr. Anderson’s previous work — every shot seems exactly right — but its narrative form is more classical and less weighted down by the pressures of self-aware auteurism. It flows smoothly, linearly, building momentum and unbearable tension. Mr. Day-Lewis’s outsize performance, with its footnote references to Huston and strange, contorted Kabuki-like grimaces, occasionally breaks the skin of the film’s surface like a dangerous undertow. The actor seems to have invaded Plainview’s every atom, filling an otherwise empty vessel with so much rage and purpose you wait for him to blow. It’s a thrilling performance, among the greatest I’ve seen, purposefully alienating and brilliantly located at the juncture between cinematic realism and theatrical spectacle.

This tension between realism and spectacle runs like a fissure through the film and invests it with tremendous unease. You are constantly being pulled away from and toward the charismatic Plainview, whose pursuit of oil reads like a chapter from this nation’s grand narrative of discovery and conquest. His 1911 strike puts the contradictions of this story into graphic, visual terms. Mr. Anderson initially thrusts you close to the awesome power of the geyser, which soon bursts into flames, then pulls back for a longer view, his sensuously fluid camera keeping pace with Plainview and his men as they race about trying to contain what they’ve unleashed. But the monster has been uncorked. The black billowing smoke pours into the sky, and there it will stay.

With a story of and for our times, “There Will Be Blood” can certainly be viewed through the smeary window that looks onto the larger world. It’s timeless and topical, general and specific, abstract and as plain as the name of its fiery oilman. It’s an origin story of sorts. The opening images of desert hills and a droning electronic chord allude to the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” whose murderous apes are part of a Darwinian continuum with Daniel Plainview. But the film is above all a consummate work of art, one that transcends the historically fraught context of its making, and its pleasures are unapologetically aesthetic. It reveals, excites, disturbs, provokes, but the window it opens is to human consciousness itself.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters (German: Die Fälscher) is an Academy Award winning 2007 Austrian/German film written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. It fictionalizes Operation Bernhard, a secret plan by the Nazis during the Second World War to destabilize the United Kingdom by flooding its economy with forged Bank of England currency. The film centers on a Jewish counterfeiter, Salomon Sorowitsch, who is coerced into assisting the Nazi operation at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The film is based on a memoir written by Adolf Burger, a Jewish Slovak typographer who was imprisoned in 1942 for forging baptismal certificates to save Jews from deportation, and later interned at Sachsenhausen to work on Operation Bernhard. It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 80th Academy Awards in 2008 for Austria.

The Counterfeiters is a flawed but fascinating film about a Nazi plot to flood the allied economies with bogus banknotes. Stefan Ruzowitzky's tale is fascinating because the material is so rich in dramatic potential, lifting the lid on a clandestine scheme in which a disparate group of concentration-camp inmates were corralled into propping up the German war effort. And it is flawed because the moral implications of this scheme are so charged and turbulent that they defy neat resolution. If the film's inhabitants are walking a tightrope, it occasionally seems that that its writer-director is too.

Karl Markovics stars as Sally Sorowitsch, a Jewish forger who is put in charge of a bunch of former printers, graphic artists and financiers and set to work making pound notes and dollar bills. The counterfeiters regard themselves as a cut above their fellow prisoners. The Holocaust is unfolding behind a plywood fence, and yet here they are with clean sheets on their beds and a ping-pong table in their yard. They reminded me a little of the pampered rabbits in Watership Down, who are allowed to gorge themselves on fresh lettuce on the understanding that they turn a collective blind eye when the farmer decides he wants something new for the pot.
This is an ambitious account of institutionalised evil, buttressed by a terrific central performance from Markovics as the sullen survivor type. Its dehumanising environment can be read as a kind of corrupted Schindler's List in which the success of the few could indirectly lead to the death of countless others. Yes, the director is implicitly asking us to judge these men in their gilded cage. But he mercifully provides no pat answers or cheap moralising. The situation is too desperate and compromising for that.

He makes just a few missteps along the way. Ruzowitzky's tight focus on the forgers' operation means that the Holocaust risks being relegated to the role of the bogeyman under the bed; a looming horror that is referred to in whispers but never dragged into the light. Then there is the character of Burger (August Diehl), the communist firebrand who serves as the camp's conscience. It is Burger who realises the consequences of collaboration and exhorts the others to resist.

Just who is Burger, exactly? In real life it transpires that the man is Jewish too (in fact, he is still alive, and wrote the memoir on which the film is based). And yet his screen incarnation appears more confusing. Crucially, we are told that Burger was sent to the camps for printing anti-Nazi propaganda, raising the possibility that he is being persecuted for his political beliefs as opposed to his race. Was it wise for Ruzowitzky to leave this possibility hanging, this suggestion that it took a saintly gentile to whip the Jewish inmates into shape? The Counterfeiters remains a tough, clear-eyed, provocative piece of work. But that one wobble almost casts it into the abyss.

The title would incline you to believe it's a comedy, like The Ladykillers or The Producers, and the opening minutes of Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky's film do play in a jaunty, if not quite jolly, key.

The war has just ended, and a shifty, gaunt-looking man checks into a deluxe Monte Carlo hotel; he spends the evening playing the tables and ends it in bed with a foxy young lady. Only when she spots the number tattooed on his arm does it dawn that this will not be a comedy after all. It is about a hideous struggle for life in the most appalling circumstances imaginable.

The man is Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), who in 1936 was the toast of the Berlin underworld, a scoundrel, gambler and "king of counterfeiters". He has the talent of an artist, and the temperament of a con man – his fastidious craftsmanship enables him to forge banknotes, passports, documents, and as long as there's a market, black or otherwise, he'll adapt to it. The one thing he can't get away with is being a Jew, and when he's arrested and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp he soon realises that he's not there just for being a criminal. But Sorowitsch proves himself adaptable inside the abyss, and becomes a kind of court painter to the SS.

Stories of surviving the Holocaust tend to be remarkable by definition. This one, based on a memoir, The Devil's Workshop, has something more: a genuine moral tension. It has the force of Schindler's List without the heroic intervention of a Schindler. Sorowitsch, based on a Russian Jewish artist and forger named Salomon Smolianoff, is relocated from Mauthausen in 1944 to the camp at Sachsenhausen, where his talents are exploited in a massive counterfeit operation designed by the Nazis to flood the enemy economy. In barracks separated from the rest of the camp Sorowitsch and other hand-picked prisoners – former printers, graphic artists, typographers – are put to work forging banknotes so perfect that they will escape the most stringent examination. (The pound notes they fake apparently hoodwink even the Bank of England.)

The reward for their labours is clean bed linen, running water, decent food and, most importantly, the privilege of not being exposed to life "out there". Should they fail in their task, however, the gas chambers await. Sorowitsch tries to blank out the sounds coming from the other side of the wall – the everyday routines of shooting and torture – and most of the time succeeds. "One adapts or dies," he tells a fellow prisoner.

Yet even Sorowitsch cannot remain blind forever to the devil's pact the counterfeiters have entered: he knows by their skills they are helping to prop up the Reich's bankrupt economy and prolong the Nazi war effort. And what if Germany is victorious? It is all too likely that the counterfeiters will be killed like other Jews once their usefulness is at an end.

The film points up the grotesque moral quandary Sorowitsch and the others face. It begins as soon as they arrive at the camp and are provided with civilian clothes – too bad they come attached with labels from their former owners, murdered Jews in Auschwitz. One of the prisoners, Burger (August Diehl, who has the haunted eyes of a young Christopher Walken) refuses to wear them, and later takes to sabotaging the production of bogus dollar bills. He, unlike Sorowitsch, cannot ignore his conscience.

When the Nazis reward the counterfeiters for their work, they give them a ping-pong table, and as the inmates play they hear the sounds of others being murdered.

Ruzowitzky renders vividly the experience of living half-in, half-outside the inferno. One of the most telling sequences involves Sorowitsch being summoned to the house of the Nazi officer Herzog (Devid Striesow) in charge of the counterfeit scam, and then introduced to the man's wife and children. The domestic normality looks weirdly, obscenely alien.

By now the war is coming to an end, and Herzog wants Sorowitsch to provide false passports for him and his family, and the tables seem to be turning. The Nazi remarks, half-admiringly, of the artist's talent: "Tricks and fakery – that's what you Jews are good at!" – yet absolutely fails to see the monstrous scale of his own lies. Perhaps a more subtle point about fakery is being made, in that only a man so used to institutionalised deception could so completely deceive himself.

Sorowitsch, a severe pragmatist, knows he can survive by acting in his own interest. When he is at Mauthausen he spots in the corner of his eye the half-eaten apple of a German guard whose portrait he's sketching. There's a sudden diversion, and when the camera looks back the apple is gone. Yet Markovics embodies Sorowitsch, for all his Darwinian thinking, as a sympathetic character. His slightly rodenty demeanour and narrow gaze invite suspicion, and our foreknowledge that he has taken a suitcaseful of money to Monte Carlo after the war is open to ambiguity.

Yet his character is more complicated than it first seems. In the cattle truck to Sachsenhausen he gives a starving fellow prisoner his soup, and later bribes his Nazi master to procure medicine to save the life of the same man, now stricken with tuberculosis.

It is said that the real-life forger, Smolianoff, did not take part in the sabotage of Operation Bernhard, as the counterfeit operation was known, and given that more than £130m was faked, it seems resistance was the exception rather than the rule; apart from Burger, it is not clear in the film which of the prisoners actually did risk their lives by delaying production. This parable of fakery and compromise asks the most difficult question: how much would you be willing to sacrifice in the interest of your own survival? And how grateful do you feel that you will probably never have to answer it?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

The Edge of Heaven (international English title) (original title German: Auf der anderen Seite, Turkish: Yaşamın Kıyısında) is a 2007 Turkish-German film written and directed by Fatih Akın. The film won the Prix du scénario at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It is selected for Germany's entry to contest at the 2007 Oscar.

After making its worldwide debut at Cannes Film Festival in France, the film was shown at several international film festivals. Its nationwide start in German movie theaters is on September 27, 2007.

German cinema has long been neglected by the Cannes Film Festival. In the last ten years only one German film was shown in competition, Hans Weingartners The Edukators (Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei) in 1994. Perhaps they were right to show so little of German cinema because most films in that era just weren't good enough, although not showing The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) last year may be seen as a wrong decision, with the film going on to win an Academy Award and having more than 1.4 million spectators in France this spring. And this is not the only German film being released in France . More than a dozen titles were shown on French screens in the past twelve months. So it doesn't come as a surprise to have a German film in competition this year, Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite), which won the award of the Ecumenical jury.

Fatih Akin is a wanderer between two worlds, born in Hamburg but of Turkish parents. In the official Cannes catalogue he is listed as having Turkish nationality, while other sources say he is a German citizen, he probably has both nationalities. All his films deal with German-Turkish relations and especially the experience of Turkish born Germans (all except Solino, which is also an immigration story but with Italians as the main protagonists). In his biggest success yet Head On (Gegen die Wand) which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival, he told with passion and fervor a doomed love affair between Germany and Turkey. The Edge of Heaven is (in his own words) a rather “intellectual film”, one that reflects rather than shouts its message out.

One of its main protagonists is a professor of German literature, Nejat, of Turkish origin who is fully integrated into German society. He is the observer of the things happening in the film. What is happening is rather morbid. The film has three chapters; the first one is titled Yeter's Death, the second one Lotte's Death, only the third one is called On the Other Side which is identical with the German title of the whole film. Yeter is a Turkish woman who is killed in Germany. Lotte is a German woman who is killed in Istanbul. Both women are killed by Turkish males, who display their kind of machismo. Yeter is killed by Nejat's father, who had bought her services as prostitute. Normally a genial man he kills her in a blind rage after a slight dispute. Lotte is killed by a child, a young boy who finds a pistol with which he targets Lotte rather playfully and killing her after pulling the trigger.

Both stories are intertwined, because Lotte was a friend and lover of Ayten, who was the daughter of Yeter. Ayten is a left wing political activist in Istanbul, who flees to Germany after being threatened by the police. She seeks her mother (who is then already dead), meets Lotte, but is later arrested by the police and sent back to Turkey as an illegal alien. There she is arrested at once; Lotte is in Istanbul to help her, when she dies.

The third act brings the relatives of the two killed women together. Lotte's mother comes to Istanbul and meets Nejat, who now runs a German bookshop. Together they help to free Ayten who is eventually released and helps Lotte's mother to mourn her daughter. And Nejat has to come to terms with his father who after being in prison in Germany for the manslaughter of Yeter is also expulsed from Germany and lives now in Trabzon on the Black Sea, the city of his (and Nejat's) ancestors.

The Edge of Heaven is a film burdened with plot. Fatih Akin has written a very precise script which tries to cover as many aspects of Turkish and German relations as possibly. Women and men, parents and children, police and citizens – all these combinations are studied, not only for one nationality but for two. But the weight of the film lies on the Turkish side. The only Germans in the story are Lotte and her mother. So Fatih Akin's film is rather a study of Turkish emigrants coming to terms with their Turkishness. In the beginning, Nejat is a perfect German professor, who quotes Goethe perfectly bus isn't able to identify popular Turkish pop songs. His homecoming — first to the westernized Istanbul and later to the more traditional Trabzon — is the most important theme of the film. However, one point to criticize in the script is the easy way a professor gives up his rather well paid job for a little bookshop in Istanbul which can't earn him much money. The other characters are variations on the Turkish experience in Germany: Ali, Nejat's father, is a first-generation immigrant, who speaks very good German but has never forgotten his Turkish ways. If he needs a woman he buys one, and if she isn't doing what he wants, he beats her. Nonetheless this old man is shown as a positive figure; his murderous rage comes as a surprise, particularly after he had had a heart attack. He's one of the people thrown out of their way by emigration. Ayten is a modern Turkish woman, fighting for human rights and freedom of speech. It is never really explained which political group she belongs to. At a rally posters with the face of Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Worker's Party are shown, but Ayten is never referred to as being Kurdish. She is a victim of Turkish state brutality executed by the police (in uniform or plain clothes) who seem rather to be part of a police state, than of a democratic community which wants to be a member of the European Union. All Turks in the film are rather unimpressed by Europe, only Lotte's mother sees hope in a future membership of Turkey in the EU.

So, The Edge of Heaven is a rather political film which denounces the Turkish society of today without having a solution to all its problems, besides maybe in a very personal way for every person. The big theme of the film is alienation, people not being at home in the way they live or where they live. If there is a message in The Edge of Heaven then it is that everybody must find their own place in society, whether it be in Turkey or Germany , but with the underlying urge that everyone feels most comfortable when he or she is at home. The tragedy of Fatih Akin's film lies there, that most of his protagonists don't have one home, they are wanderers between two worlds (like himself) and are so doomed to also have to invent themselves anew.

It is giving nothing away to reveal that a pair of fatalities take place in Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, since these events are announced long before they happen by two of the film's three chapter headings, 'Yeter's Death' and 'Lotte's Death'. For those familiar with the director's previous features, such dark portents will come as no surprise: from his Scorsese-influenced gang melodrama Short Sharp Shock (1998) to the hardcore masochistic romance Head-On (2004), Akin has made murder and mortality central pillars of his oeuvre. Indeed, the ways in which Turkish prostitute Yeter and German student Lotte suddenly meet their maker bear an uncanny resemblance to two incidents in Akin's earlier feature, as they fall foul of the drunken brutality of a possessive lover and the casual violence of street thugs in an Istanbul alley respectively. Here, however, the alley is no longer dark and ominous, a place where no sane woman would walk at night, but rather it is sunlit and serene; and fists fly not in a seedy bar, but in a quiet suburban home.

Such changes are consistent with a general shift in tone between the two features: where the violence of Head-On was a shocking assault on its spectator, The Edge of Heaven is a softer, more haunting film. Billed as the second instalment in the director's 'Love, Death and the Devil' trilogy, it offers a technically accomplished and deeply compassionate meditation on loss and consolation, as its mosaic narrative follows the intersecting lives of six characters travelling between Istanbul and Hamburg. These include Nejat, a professor of German at Hamburg University, Ayten, a political refugee fleeing her native Turkey, and the conservative, middle-aged Susanne, who travels to Istanbul in the wake of her daughter's death. As in Akin's earlier works, the numerous instances of intercultural exchange throw up insights into the dynamics of east-west relationships, but these are, for the most part, observational and incidental - bumps rather than clashes of culture. Only Ayten's flight to Hamburg is imbued with any sense of menace, and in this respect Akin does well to emphasise (albeit clumsily) the fact that Turkey is yet to join the EU, thereby allowing the spectre of torture to loom large. Sexual, religious and economic imperatives are otherwise ignored in a film that seems decidedly sunny in its political outlook compared with works such as, for example, Michael Haneke's Code Unknown (2000) or Ulrich Seidl's forthcoming Import/Export.

Far from being a failure of naturalism, however, one senses that this whitewashing of the more unsavoury aspects of "the new cold war", as the director terms it, is one of the film's strategies for presenting a vision of hope for contemporary continental relations - a vision that extends to the film's mise en scène, with DP Rainer Klausmann's colour-saturated cinematography (a dramatic about-face for him from the penumbral Head-On and Downfall) replete with postcard visions of its twinned cities, in which even a prostitute's pastel pink underwear blends with the wall she leans against. If politics are pushed to the edges, then, it is perhaps because for Akin, cultural dislocation is both a symptom and the cause of a much deeper-seated spiritual dislocation, whose remedy can only be found in the Forsterian connection with other human beings for which the film's divergent cast of characters struggle. Criticism has been levelled at The Edge of Heaven's somewhat contrived plot twists and conventional melodrama, but in a film that sees a homeless Turk approach a stranger for cash and receive not only a meal but board and bed (a shared one, no less), it is clear that authenticity matters less than optimism - and The Edge of Heaven is no worse for that.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

The subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, on one level, is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and his beautifully rendered, large-scale shots of industrial wreckage, taken all around the world.

But not far beneath that beguiling surface lies a combined sense of wonder and dread at the scale of the environmental damage wreaked at such sites as China’s Three Gorges Dam, or of the soul-deadening effect on the uniformed workers at a gargantuan chicken-processing plant.

The film raises countless questions about the role of art in the world — a world increasingly akin to a science-fiction landscape — leaving shock and awe in its wake. Unrated; at the Colonial Theater, Phoenixville.

One would be hard-pressed these days to not notice the ever-increasing role that China is playing in all affairs of the world. The hunger of this industrial juggernaut for more consumption and production seems to be constantly rising, swallowing in the process so much energy and raw materials that an increasing number of people around the world are now asking about the human and environmental cost of this manufacturing escalation. Naturally, the Chinese are responding that these people should also question the same cost produced by their own countries over the past 100 years, that China has a right to augment its productivity and the ‘well-being’ of its people and that the country is doing more than any others to combat the negative environmental effects of its alarmingly fast entry into the world of mass consumption and production.

Still, the statistics are alarming: 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, coal production to double until 2020, 400 new cities planned over the next 20 years (including 233 Eco-cities, if the Dongtan model proves successful), around 14,000 people dying per year in industrial accidents (Corpwatch), about 60 percent (700 million people) of the population are poor peasants, the second largest producer of CO2 after the US, which it will overtake next year, the list goes on…
How can such an incredibly growth take place without triggering a chain reaction of negative consequences for many of the Chinese people, for the planet and thus, for all of us?

Edward Burtynsky’s fascination with images of nature transformed by man has led him to create stunning photography of mines, quarries, dams, and other human interventions in locations where only nature existed before…In Manufactured Landscapes, he takes his camera to China and attempts to create an ‘objective’ account of its industrialization. He refrains from bombarding us with information about the country in general and about what we see on screen. Instead, he lets his images, moving and still, do the talking, occasionally punctuated by a simple and short voice-over whose economy serves to trigger a thought process rather than to fill our heads with data.

The result is fascinating, beautiful to watch at times, and mind-boggling at other times when the visuals force us to confront the absurdity of a worldwide system that forces most people to react in a similar fashion in similar circumstances: more is better, even if it means exhausting all of our resources in the process. In his very informative book ‘Collapse’, Jared Diamond shows how societies keep on making the same mistake and will drain their resources until it is too late. In most cases, the intention is not to do so. It is simply usually too difficult to assess the gravity of the situation until it is too late, and, often, as is the case with China today, other demands are placed on the society that seem to take priority over anything else.

One of the more powerful segments in the film is about the 3 Gorges Dam. Burtynski’s photographs show a ruined and nightmarish landscape around the dam, where dozens of cities have had to be relocated to give way to the new river. Most of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by this dramatic redefining of the landscape were poor to begin with, and then were asked to dismantle their houses, brick by brick, and transport them miles away where they could be rebuilt. The valley now looks like it has been bombed, a frightening and eerie scenery that could have served as the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. But the irony of it all is that, only a few days ago, the news came out, after much suspicion on the part of environmentalists that it would, that the valley has become an ecological disaster (landslides, pollution and water contamination….) and that all houses, which the people have rebuilt brick by brick, must now be moved again, even further away from the river. The cost of the dam and of the various relocations of the inhabitants of the valley must now be approaching 30 billion dollars.

Manufactured Landscapes, although using China as a canvas, is a reflection on the future of the planet, on the course of action we humans decide to take, and whether we are strong enough to do what is necessary to alter the path of destruction that seems to be our preferred choice so far.

At one point in the absorbing if unsettling documentary “Manufactured Landscapes,” about the work of the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a few unnamed voices try to assure a couple of Chinese officials not to worry. Mr. Burtynsky, these voices say, will make everything — meaning the mountains of coal that seem to stretch on forever behind them — beautiful. And so Mr. Burtynsky does. Whether in a coal distribution center or a garbage dump, he turns the grotesque into something beautiful, or at least something that looks good on a gallery wall.

It’s unclear if those Chinese officials are government minders or work for the enormous company that funnels those mountains of coal first into factories and then into the environment. “Manufactured Landscapes” is one of those contemporary documentaries that put a premium on their visuals (which are estimable) and their conceptual underpinnings (a bit vague), and pay rather less attention to nominally irrelevant details like dates and names, facts and figures, history and politics. Thus, while some black-and-white video images of Mr. Burtynsky (shot by Jeff Powis) during his photographic safaris is time-stamped to a few years ago, much of the film takes place in a nonspecific present.

In this present, Mr. Burtynsky and an indefinite number of helpers trot across China taking glossy, large-format, generally long-view color photographs of factories, welding sites and recycling centers, with an abbreviated side trip to the Bangladesh coast where young men disassemble oil tankers, at times ankle-deep in sludge. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and sensitively shot in 16-millimeter film by Peter Mettler, “Manufactured Landscapes” (which is also the name of a 2003 book of Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs) is partly a Great Man documentary, a record of an artist immortalized at the moment of creation: point, shoot, voilà! Rather more interestingly, at times, it also appears to be a rather tentative, perhaps even unconscious, critique of that same artist and his vision.

Critique may be too strong a word. Still, at its most arresting “Manufactured Landscapes” does suggest that Ms. Baichwal and her excellent cinematographer are not entirely at ease with Mr. Burtynsky’s work, which tends to subordinate the human form to the harmonious use of color, the balance of graphical forms and the overwhelming man-made and man-ravaged environments. In many of these landscapes (which I have looked at only in this film and online), scores of anonymous workers become specks of canary yellow and blots of bubble-gum pink, a pointillist population. The angles of their bowed heads and raised arms, carefully arranged before assembly lines, are just some of the decorative, precise formal elements. Note how those angles dovetail with those of the machinery.

What’s missing from these photographs, those populated and not, is any sense of process, of context and consequence. For the most part, the film remains equally silent on the same, though the film’s repeated close-ups of the workers’ faces locked in Mr. Burtynsky’s sightlines suggest that Ms. Baichwal is more concerned with people than the subject is. In this film, at least, a mountain of coal is strictly an aesthetic subject for Mr. Burtynsky, not an index of the miserable conditions of its mining or a ghastly reminder of the nearly 6,000 workers who died in Chinese coal mines in 2005, the year the film was shot. Or a warning of the pollution that wafts from China’s smokestacks to the Western United States, coating mountains in Oregon, California and Washington State.

The almost freakishly, crystalline detail and obsessively exacting compositions of Mr. Burtynsky’s work can bring to mind that of Ansel Adams, though the subject matter means that it more rightly belongs to the technological sublime than to the natural sublime. In his book “American Technological Sublime,” a study of manufactured sublime experiences — beautifully represented by Walker Evans’s celebratory photographs of the grandeur and engineering feat that is the Brooklyn Bridge — the historian David E. Nye writes that “one person’s sublime may be another’s abomination.” As this film indicates, intentionally and not, an artist may not always be able to gauge the difference between the sublime and the abominable, but with knowledge and a will to conscience a viewer just might.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is an Academy Award-nominated 2007 film written and directed by Paul Haggis, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon.

Paul Haggis' In The Valley of Elah is based on true events, and explores themes including the Iraq war, abuse of prisoners, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following active combat, but also delves into the heart of the everyday American by portraying a father's earnest hunt for his son's killer and even the patriotism of the every-day American.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired army sergeant with experience in investigating military crimes. He learns that his son Mike has returned to America and has gone AWOL. Hank leaves, in hopes of finding his son.

Though hurrying to the army base, Hank takes the time to stop at the local school, where the United States Flag has been modified by someone to hang upside down. Hank explains that the American standard hanging upside down is a sign of great distress, according to the United States Flag Code. He and the caretaker fix the flag before he continues on his way.

When the crime is finally solved, and the men from Mike's squadron are revealed as his killers, Hank heads home to find a flag his son sent in the mail with a picture of it flying with his squad in Iraq. Hank takes the flag to the school, where he flies it upside down; a sign that everything is not all-right and the country is in distress (presumably regarding the Iraq war or the care of soldiers returning from combat). He duct tapes the ropes of the flag staff and instructs the school's custodian to leave it like that, even at night.

Paul Haggis' startling new film suggests the only people damaged US soldiers can turn to are the Vietnam vets who suffered before them.

The suicide rate in the US military is at a 30-year-high as American soldiers return from the Iraq war. That is the claim made by Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (who unveiled his new film, In the Valley Of Elah at the Venice film festival at the weekend.)

Homelessness among the Iraq veterans is also on the rise and Haggis says the US government is turning a blind eye to veterans' problems. He says 30,000 US soldiers have been told "you don't have post-traumatic stress syndrome, you have a pre-existing behavioural problem".

With little support from the authorities, the traumatised soldiers are turning elsewhere for help. In particular, Vietnam veterans are coming forward to help them.

"The only reason there are not more suicides is because the Vietnam veterans have taken them [the Iraq veterans] under their wings and are talking them through this. They are not getting help from the government."

Haggis suggests the Vietnam veterans, who were themselves set adrift when they came home, now have a new sense of purpose in "trying to steer these men through this terrible morass".

The US director is now planning special screenings of In The Valley Of Elah to raise money for veterans.

"If they [the media] showed us the photographs of the dead, if we saw the same things as the troops see, we would make our own decisions very quickly. We wouldn't have to be told that this [the war] is a corrupt endeavour," Haggis says.

In The Valley Of Elah stars Tommy Lee Jones as a proud army veteran searching for his son, a soldier who has come home to the US on leave from service in Baghdad. In the course of his search for his son, he uncovers terrible secrets about what the soldiers saw and endured in Iraq.

Haggis has already shown rough cuts of the film to army veterans all over the US. Despite being approached by the filmmakers, the Pentagon and department of defence have refused to give In the Valley Of Elah their support. Nonetheless, it has already received a resoundingly positive response from the veterans, who - Haggis says - see it as an accurate reflection of their experiences. "That is what they say over and over."

Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah explores the consequences of a tough patrimony, which is all the more desolate for being nobly intended. It has a quite towering performance at its centre. Tommy Lee Jones, his face as iconically craggy as Clint's, plays a Vietnam vet and former military policeman, Hank Deerfield, whose son, recently returned from duty in Iraq, has gone missing.

Hank drives down to the military base in New Mexico where his son was stationed, interviews members of his unit and tries to make sense of his disappearance. Once the truth begins to emerge he is given belated help by a harassed police detective (Charlize Theron). "It's the least I can do," she says. "I'd say that's accurate," he replies.

What begins as a mystery story turns out to be an oblique yet damning investigation of the Iraq War. That obliqueness is very deliberate; Hank has palmed his son's camera phone and turned it over to a hacker, who gradually pieces together fragments of film that the boy had shot while on duty. Their meaning becomes horrifically apparent.

The formal daring of the drama, however, is to filter it almost entirely through the baffled father. Hank, a ramrod-straight patriot to begin with, slowly bends under the pressure of his discoveries, and a phone call home to his wife (Susan Sarandon) lays out with appalling clarity just what his ambition for his children has cost them.

At times it seems that Jones is hardly acting at all; his military bearing and economy of words carry the story of his career service, but it's in the fleeting twitch of a facial muscle and the sorrowful flicker of his eyes that we read what's happened to his soul. Sometimes there is nothing more moving than pain held in check by reticence, and nobody does that better than Jones.

Ironically, the one time he does talk at length we sense a terrible moral kickback lying in wait. Asked for a bedtime story by Theron's young son, Hank tells him the legend of David and Goliath who fought in the Valley of Elah and impresses the kid so deeply that he later asks his mom for a slingshot. It seems there is no age too tender to begin stirring the bellicose instincts of America's young.